It is no secret that Gerard Pique is one of the best central defenders in world football. Since rejoining Barcelona, Pique has impressed consistently with his technical prowess and ability to read the game, qualities often at a premium in his position. He has started 2013 with a flourish, too, playing his way into the FIFA/FIFPro World XI, excelling against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey and, no doubt most importantly, celebrating the birth of his first son.
Pique is indeed going through a golden period in both his personal and professional life, but it is one that contrasts starkly with his difficult start to 2012. In a typically insightful exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Catalan defender spoke of his challenging past year, his brilliant present and what is shaping up to be a very promising future.
On the up
“I’m very proud, and this is a unique period,” Pique said at the start of the conversation, describing his feelings about his current situation. “I think it reflects the fact that things are going well, both individually and as a team. I realise these are moments that you have to enjoy and make the most of.”
Pique is all too aware of the need to cherish his current good fortune, having endured an altogether less prosperous spell in early 2012. “My injuries wouldn’t let me perform to the level I wanted, and disrupted my continuity in the team,” he said, before revealing the turning point in his return to form. “The EURO gave me a lot of breathing space and the team played very well defensively, which served as a platform for this season. I’ve come back strong and motivated, and the team is playing superbly too, which always helps.”
In the Copa del Rey, Champions League and La Liga, we’ve shown the kind of level that makes us believe we can be champions.
The Barça defender’s status meant his struggles were well documented in the Spanish media and around the world, which in turn had an inevitable effect on his life. “It always affects you a little,” he said, “because the best thing as a defender is when people don’t talk about you, and when the rumours start it always makes you uncomfortable. But it’s part of football and I’ve learned to deal with it. Now I value my wellbeing much more. When I arrived at Barcelona everything went smoothly and it all seemed very easy, but when things get complicated it makes you value what you’ve got, and helps you to be a better player.”
The present situation could not be more different. Barça are at a critical point in the season, with a comfortable league lead, a Copa del Rey semi-final and a last-16 tie in the UEFA Champions League in prospect. An exciting time, no doubt, but Pique says he and his team-mates are not getting carried away. “We’re taking it game by game, and we’re training very hard and well. The way you train is the way you play, and in the end if you train well, you’ll play well. That’s how we approach matches and it never changes, not even when the pressure is at its greatest.”
Barça have reached this strong position under the guidance of a new coach, Tito Vilanova, who himself has battled serious illness this season. Vilanova also had the hard task of picking up where the hugely successful Pep Guardiola left off, but Pique believes he has more than held his own so far. “Tito is doing a great job,” he said. “He’s not doing any more or less than Pep – he’s simply doing what he did, and adding his own touch. The team is performing superbly and the transition has been seamless.”
The Catalans have indeed dazzled this season, and find themselves a full 16 points clear of habitual rivals Real Madrid in La Liga. But, as Pique explained, it is an advantage that nobody at the club had anticipated. “You never expect it, and it’s clear that nobody expected it this time. Real had just won the league and they have a great team. It’s a very significant gap but you can never take it for granted.”
But while their league challenge is firmly on track, Barça’s destiny in the Copa del Rey and Champions League is far from certain. The second leg of their cup semi-final against Real is finely poised, and they face a difficult test against AC Milan in the Champions League round of 16. Pique, though, is convinced his side have what it takes to win those matches and triumph on all fronts this season.
“I think we’re in a good position to lift all three trophies,” he said. “We’ve got ambition, desire and talent, which in general are the ingredients you need for victory. I think that, in the Copa del Rey, Champions League and La Liga, we’ve shown the kind of level that makes us believe we can be champions.”